I remember getting a phone call from dad in October of 1974. He announced that the State of Nebraska became the first state to finish all of its mainline Interstate highways. Dad had reason to be proud of this fact, because he had been one of the design and works engineers on the project.
In other posts, I’ve mentioned that my dad is a retired civil engineer who spent most of his life designing and supervising highway construction projects. So, my early years were steeped in highway culture. Freeways and other superhighways have been a special interest of mine for as long as I can remember.
There were many official and legal ingredients leading up to the design and construction of the country’s Interstate System of freeways and tollways. I’ll just mention a few of the early steps in passing, because much of it involved lobbying and legislation the description of which, puts most of us to sleep.
The US federal government’s very first national highway network of any sort started with the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. The important part of this act was the precedent of providing federal matching funds to the states for highway construction and improvements. This aspect is the key to present day highway construction.
The first goal of building an interconnected primary road system came with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921. The system was advised by the former head of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, during the first World War, General John J. Pershing.
In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to build a system of superhighways as a part of his public works programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt created a hand-drawm map of the US, outlining eight major superhighway corridors he wanted developed. Roosevelt then requested that the head of the Bureau of Public Roads determine the feasibility of his dream highways.
The President’s Republican opponents hated the idea, they called it “another ascent into the stratosphere of New Deal jitterbug economics”. On the other hand, experts in civil engineering and highway planners were overwhelmingly pleased with the President’s idea.
In 1941, Roosevelt appointed a National Interregional Highway Committee to investigate the implementations of a limited system of national, limited access highways. The Bureau of Public Roads Division published an official report called “Toll Roads and Free Roads”. In 1943, the report was followed up with a paper called, “Interregional Highways”.
After the death of President Roosevelt and the end of World War Two the “Interregional Highways” plan gained momentum when President Harry S. Truman heard out General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s description of Germany’s Reichsautobahn System. Eisenhower understood how Germany utilized its Autobahn to mobilize its military to conduct the war. It was at this time that the US government fully recognised the strategic value and wisdom of Roosevelt’s Interregional plans.
Prior to Dwight Eisenhower’s election to the White House, the states had completed only 6,500 miles of Roosevelt and Truman’s projects. Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, former General Motors president, Charles Wilson assisted the planning of the Interregional System by publishing, in 1955, the “Yellow Book”, officially known as General Location of National System of Interstate Highways.
Actual attempts to expand the Interregional System stalled in Congress between 1954 and 1956. The President made a push for the plan in his 1956 State of the Union speech. The controversy over the apportionment of Federal and State funding was finally ironed out. Finally, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was approved by a joint House-Senate conference committee with a vote on June 26, 1956.
The initial plan of the Interstate System included some 41,000 miles at a projected cost of $25,000,000,000. It was to be the nation’s largest public works project. During the President’s recovery from a minor illness, President Eisenhower signed the bill into law, at Walter Reed Medical Center on June 29th. The law was named, “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”.
The development of Interstates and other major highways steered the way for the pattern of urban development to be fundamentally altered to be based on the automobile. This is largely a result of auto industry influence in the final planning stages of the Interstate System.